Edward Ashton

The dividing line between love and obsession can be as thin as a pane of glass.

She works in my building. I see her sometimes in the stairwell and sometimes in the halls. She's taller than I am, over six feet, with long black hair and pale blue eyes and a neck that curves up from her collar like a swan's. Her name is Danielle, and if I'm feeling brave I might say "Hello, Danielle," or "Good morning, Danielle," or even something about her jacket or dress, how she wears it very well. She often says thank you if I say something nice, but she never says anything unless I speak first. In fact, I don't believe she knows my name, though we've been working in the same building for almost two years.

My wife's name is Laura. When I get home from work she says, "How were things at work today? How's Danielle?" She knows about Danielle because I talk in my sleep. I tell her things are the same as always, that she doesn't know I'm alive. She says I should let her know if things change, because she has a bag packed and ready. I've looked for this bag and have never actually found it, but because we have no children I consider it a credible threat.

Danielle lives alone in a one-story cottage on Herkimer Street. I know this because a year ago I found her address in the telephone book, and since then I've occasionally driven past her house on my way to somewhere else. The neighborhood is quiet and clean. In the daytime children play kickball in the street, and at night I've seen couples and old people walking up and down the block. I have never seen Danielle out walking, either alone or with others. Once, in a moment of weakness, I parked across the street from her house and sat watching her through an open window as she ate her dinner and worked a crossword puzzle in an easy chair. She was wearing glasses, which she never does at work, and she was dressed in an old rumpled sweatshirt and torn denim jeans. You'd think this might tarnish my image of her, but in fact I found her more attractive then than I had before. When she set aside her puzzle, stood, stretched, and went off to bed, I had a terrible urge to slink around to the back of her house, to try to find her bedroom window, to watch her as she slept. But I haven't sunk to quite that level yet.

Laura was waiting when I got home that night, demanding to know where I'd been. I told her I'd been drinking at a bar, but there was no alcohol on my breath, so she knew that was a lie. She said that if I'd smelled of perfume she would have left me on the spot, but since I didn't I'd probably only been hanging around outside her window masturbating, which she supposed was all right if that was as far as it went. I wanted to explain to her that in fact there was nothing sexual in the incident at all, but I could see that this wasn't something she could discuss rationally. In the end I just nodded and left it at that.

I have a friend at work named Brian. He has an office across the hall from mine. He's just turned forty and has been married and divorced three times in the past ten years. He advises me to leave Laura -- or, more likely, to coerce her into leaving me -- and then to pursue and win over Danielle. I haven't done this for two reasons: I don't believe that Danielle would have me, and I truly would miss my wife, who is an excellent cook and a good conversationalist. Brian has said more than once that if he ever caught himself thinking of his wife in those terms he'd either divorce her immediately or throw himself off the roof. I think this attitude goes a long way toward explaining his utter failure as a husband. Physical attraction is transitory. The pleasures of the intellect are the only ones that last.

I have a recurring dream in which I'm hiding in the bushes behind Danielle's cottage, peering in her window as she undresses for bed. She peels off layer after layer, but no matter how much clothing she removes, she still has more on underneath, until finally I begin to beat my head against the glass in frustration. She comes to the window then and opens it, but just as she's about to speak I always wake. I've tried many times to fall back asleep and into the dream, but somehow it always comes out twisted -- I end up staring in the window at my wife getting undressed. Or, worse yet, it's me in the bedroom and Laura on the outside looking in.

Over lunch I tell Brian about the dream. He laughs and says that if I want to get over my frustration I should come to his apartment that evening, and that I should bring along a twelve-pack of beer. When I get there we sit at his kitchen table for a while, drinking and talking about work and women and whether the Pirates still have a chance at the pennant. I don't drink very often, and by the time we've gone through four or five beers each I'm feeling light-headed and giddy. Brian asks if I want to see something and I say yes, mostly because I feel a need to get up and move around, so we go into his front room and he puts in a black-and-white videotape of himself having sex with a woman who looks like Danielle. She's on top of him, straddling his hips, rocking forward and backward and grunting each time. Brian on the tape turns and winks at the camera. Brian sitting beside me bursts out laughing. I lean forward, put my head between my knees, and squeeze my eyes shut. The room is spinning and my pulse is racing and I'm afraid I'm having some sort of attack. Brian tells me to sit up, that I'm missing the best part. My stomach is heaving and Danielle is crying out to God and Jesus and Brian is laughing and fluid is pouring out of my mouth and splashing onto the carpet. I press my hands to my ears and wait for the screaming to stop.

I see Danielle in the stairwell at work the next day, coming up to the fourth floor as I'm going down. I don't say hello. She looks up with a half-smile when she sees me, but as we come closer she glances away, and she turns to avoid brushing against me as we pass.

A month or so after that, Laura shakes me out of a sound sleep at five in the morning and asks me if something is wrong.

"Is there trouble in paradise?" she says. "You haven't mentioned your girlfriend in weeks."

I close my eyes and say I don't have a girlfriend. I only have a wife. I feel Laura lean closer then, feel her breath warm in my ear.

"That's right," she whispers. "You do have a wife." She kisses my ear, kisses my cheek, kisses my mouth. She pulls her nightgown off over her head and climbs on top of me, and we make love for the first time in the better part of a year. And it's fine, it's good, until Laura began to shake and cry out and I think of Danielle and the video and I just can't do it. I can't quite get there. I pretend, but I think Laura knows, because she doesn't say anything to me when we're finished. She just pulls on her nightgown and goes into the bathroom, and I fall asleep listening to the water running and dream that I'm in Danielle's bed and it's her in the shower and not my wife. When I wake the next morning, there's a note taped to the headboard. "I'll be at my sister's," it says. "Get this out of your system. Then give me a call."

Two days later I'm drinking at the bar in a Mexican restaurant after work when Danielle walks in. She looks once around the place, and I half-expect her to leave when she sees me. But she has no idea that there's anything between us, of course, and in fact she comes over to the bar and sits down two stools away from me. She orders a strawberry Margarita. I'm hardly aware that I'm staring at her until she turns and sees me.

"Oh, hello," she says. "Don't I know you from work?"

"Not really," I say. "I have an office on the fourth floor."

"Right, but -- " She hesitates, looks confused for a moment. "You used to say hello to me almost every day, didn't you? But you don't anymore. Did I do something rotten to you?"

"Well," I say, "my wife just left me because of you. But I don't suppose that's entirely your fault."

"Oh." She's confused again, not sure if I'm trying to be funny. I smile and shake my head, and she takes that as her cue to laugh. The bartender brings her drink. She pays him, leaves a quarter on the bar as a tip.

"So really," she says. "Did I take your parking space or something? If I did, I'm sorry, because you really used to brighten up my day."

"No," I say. "You didn't do anything. I've just had a lot of things on my mind lately. I'm sure I'll be back to my old self soon."

"That's good," she says. The hostess calls my name. Danielle nods and smiles. I wish her good night.

I drive up and down Herkimer street six times that night before I work up the courage to park. I leave my car two blocks away from Danielle's, for fear that she might look out the window and recognize it. When I get to her cottage the street is deserted. Danielle is in the front room, half asleep in front of the television. I walk up the driveway and around the side of the house, trying not to look like a burglar until I'm out of view of the street. The first window around back is her bedroom. Light from the hallway falls across her pillows and onto the floor. She has a dozen stuffed animals at the foot of her bed. I wait for five minutes, then ten. At least her neighbors haven't called the police. I lean my forehead against the glass and close my eyes. It's a warm, clear night, with just a hint of a breeze, and crickets are singing in the backyard...

And then there is light. My eyes snap open and she's standing there, her hand still on the light switch, only ten feet and a pane of glass between us. A bathrobe hangs around her shoulders, but it's open in the front and she's wearing nothing underneath. Her breasts are sagging heavily and she needs to shave her legs. She's looking straight into my eyes.

I jerk back from the window, turn and bolt around the side of the house and across the front lawn. No casual pretenses now, I'm running flat-out down the middle of the street, expecting every moment to hear her screaming behind me. But I never do, and when I get home there are no policemen waiting at my door, and the next morning when I pass Danielle in the stairwell at work she smiles and nods.

That night I have a new dream. I'm standing outside Danielle's window again, but when the light comes on it's not her bedroom I'm looking into, but my own. Laura slides the window up for me. She offers me her hand.

Edward Ashton (ashton@recce.nrl.navy.mil) is a research engineer by necessity and a fiction writer by choice. His work has appeared in a number of online and print magazines, including Blue Penny Quarterly, Painted Hills Review, Brownstone Quarterly, and The Pearl.

InterText stories written by Edward Ashton: "The Rock" (v5n3), "Danielle" (v6n2), "Christmas Carol" (v7n5).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Edward Ashton.